Cleaning Up After Clementine

08/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Washington, D.C. -- One of the odd features of the recent Supreme Court ruling exempting mining wastes from the Clean Water Act was the almost lugubrious language with which the Court's majority deplored the idea that mining companies, if required to obtain clean water permits, should actually bear the burden of knowing whether their wastes were toxic to waterways. But mining companies just aren't accustomed to doing the environmental diligence that industry, logging, or oil and gas face, because miners are still governed by the antiquated General Mining Law of 1872. In 1872 the average miner was, indeed, Clementine's father with hand tools. Dynamite had only been invented by Alfred Nobel five years previously. Yellowstone National Park was an idea moving through Congress along with the General Mining Law. The enormous drag lines and clamshell diggers that dominate modern mining were inconceivable.

So mining's had a century-and-a-half exemption from having to keep up with environmental standards. Now Interior Secretary Salazar has joined the ranks of progressive Interior secretaries and congressional leaders for decades by announcing that he wants to reform and replace the ancient law and bring mining into the 21st century. Salazar has some history with just how hard this issue is, having worked on it as a senator from Colorado. In making his announcement, he laid out the need for reform:

It is time to ensure a fair return to the public for mining activities that occur on public lands and to address the cleanup of abandoned mines.

We must find an approach to modernize the General Mining Law of 1872 and ensure that development occurs in a manner consistent with the needs of mining and the protection of the public, our public lands, and water resources.

Reform has a strong advocate in the House of Representatives, where Interior Committee Chairman Rahall of West Virginia has long sought to make mining comply with environmental standards. But in the Senate, where the industry has even more influence, and where it takes 60 votes to move reform, the climb will be much steeper.